None More Black – review and Keeper advice

The Call of Cthulhu adventure None More Black, by Brian M. Sammons, appears in the Doors to Darkness adventure collection for the 7th edition of the classic horror game. All the adventures in the book are meant as introductory to the world and system, and this adventure succeeded very well as that. It was fun to play, with variety in the challenges and it had a very cool ending.

The adventure features an unexplained death of a young college student, Walter Resnick. He was found dead in his room at a local boarding house, after he had been missing for a few days. The characters could either be local officials, such as police, coroner and perhaps a college professor, or friends of the dead student, or alternately hired investigators who get embroiled in the cause of his death.

I can highly recommend the adventure as the first adventure for a longer campaign, as the threat isn’t overwhelming, or as a stand-alone ‘one shot’ introduction to Call of Cthulhu.

It was the first adventure for our pandemic-downtime Call of Cthulhu mini-campaign. We run two parallel groups of three characters. All the characters are part of the same detective agency, Duke & Whitlock, and we switch up the characters for the next adventure, where I will be running That Jazz Craze, from Harlem Unbound.
The other Keeper ran the Haunting for three other players.

We played four 2-hour online sessions with 2-3 players for a total of eight hours of game time. It can be done faster, as some of the investigation is optional.

Online play is an inferior experience to meeting physically, particularly when you try to build mood and atmosphere, but playing with only two or three players, which CoC is great for, enhances the online play experience, compared to four or more players.

In the following article, I will briefly go through what happened in our play-through and provide some advice and highlight areas where I noticed issues or areas for special focus, in case you are running the adventure.
The rest of the article will have spoilers. So, if you want to be a player in this story, stop reading and send the link to your Keeper!

Preparing for the adventure:

How you prepare for the first part of the adventure, depends on how you involve the investigators. As my characters were private investigators, I decided that Walter’s parents hired the investigators to establish a cause of death, because they couldn’t believe the ‘natural causes’ explanation coming from the authorities.

We’ve set our game in Springfield, Massachusetts, and so I needed to have an idea of the locations where the investigators would get the initial information: the coroner’s office, the police and the boarding house. I also needed some names of students, who were part of the ‘bad element’ Walter was involved with. I’ve written that into a document you can download and use.

One of my few points of criticism for the adventure would be that there is only one physical handout for the adventure. It would have been nice, if the adventure came with eg an autopsy report and some excerpts from the Dover journal.
If you feel like you have the time and skill, you should consider making handouts for an autopsy report and an excerpt from the Dover diary.

I also changed the timeline somewhat. I found it unrealistic that Jacob Dover had amassed enough money to buy a new car and an old property and got so many followers in only a few weeks, so I increased the timeline to three very active months. One of the reasons I found it unrealistic was also that three deaths among young – upper middle class – people in a university in three weeks, would certainly be a scandal and create significant police and public awareness – and not just “throwing the campus into a panic”. Even if it happens over three months, it would be a big problem for a college and something you could play up in the adventure, with for example a nervous rector as employer and the like.

First session: initial investigation

The characters three characters were: a war veteran up and coming bootlegger of Irish descent, a classically educated black jazz musician with an occult experience and a Brazilian immigrant struggling actor/stuntman. The group was introduced to the adventure when the client – the deceased’s parents – called the detective agency. Through that brief, they learned that he was dead, that it was explained as ‘natural causes’, but it was an explanation that the parents had a hard time accepting, as the young man was known as a cheerful healthy man who did lots of sports.

The players then went to the natural first points of interest: the coroner’s office, the police and Walter’s home. They had good luck getting details from the coroner, for example that the tongue was black. The police detective was up to his ears in another case, and was stumped on this one, so he shared the highlights, but they failed a persuade roll, so didn’t get speculative details. At the boarding house where he lived, they got to speak to the neighbor and learned that he had nightmares and was ‘out of sorts’.

They proceeded to Springfield College (which I found this really nice old postcard of), where they spoke to the administration and found some of the ‘bad company’ that he had been keeping.

They managed to get Paul Rodger’s name out of them, and they followed him back to his house, when he came by to sell this ‘new thing’ later on. At Rodger’s house, I had them notice O’shea, in a car on a stakeout. As one of the characters was an up-and-coming bootlegger middle-man, he knew of him, and he decided to go talk to O’Shea.

From him they learned that Rodgers was selling something new on the market, and the O’shea family was interested in learning more. When Rodgers goes out later in the evening on a date with his girlfriend, O’Shea follows him, but the characters investigate the house. One character decides to search for a hidden extra key, and with an extreme luck success he finds one. They enter the house and find the stash (which they grab), the hidden notes and obviously the boots. That is where we ended the scene. If I had had more time, I could have had Rodgers coming home with his girlfriend to add tension, but they had learned a lot, and were ready to move on in the adventure.

Second session: scrambling scouting mission

There were only two players for this session, and it still worked very well. The jazz musician and the boot legger decided to scout the old slaughterhouse, without doing a lot of research. They drove out there, parked the car and snuck closer. They could see a car outside, and a little bit of light from inside. They also noticed a guard wandering around outside from time to time.

In the adventure, there is very little detail about where exactly the different NPCs are and what they are doing, so I decided that there was a Blackhead outside walking the perimeter once in a while, smoking a cigarette and such, but not very worried or aware.

The characters managed to sneak up to the side of the building, and from cracks in the gate on a loading ramp they could hear the chanting and Dover’s voice ordering them around, when a Blackhead had finished his spell. They try to peek into the slaughterhouse, but they need to climb to a window up under the roof. They fail their stealth test (which they are pretty bad at), push, and are discovered. The Blackhead who was patrolling comes running, and Willis Carter, the linebacker bodyguard moves outside and starts the car to use the lights on the car.

One of the few things I found missing was a more detailed description of the slaughterhouse, which my players visited twice.

I then initiate a chase scene. Unfortunately, the bootlegger is very slow, and is quickly caught up to by the Blackhead, so they enter combat, while the not very physically impressive black academic and jazz musician runs all out down a dirt road. As I’m not that familiar with the chase rules anyway, I move into a more fluid scene.

Carter drives after the musician and the bootlegger ends up shooting the Blackhead with a .45 and crits, and he falls over dead (neatly demonstrating the lethality of guns). The musician reaches they edge of the corrals and dives into the hedges to hide, but not before he sees, over his shoulder, some shadows rise from the roof of the slaughterhouse (the Nightgaunts). Carter stops the car on the road and calmly walks in there with his .38 and finds the musician trying to hide behind a tree. He orders him to walk with his hands up back to his car, as he intends to get him back to the slaughterhouse for interrogation.

But in the meantime, the bootlegger has arrived after his struggle, and takes a shot at the bodyguard. In the confusion , the not very combat capable musician kicks the bodyguard between the legs and runs away. The two combatants trade shots, the bodyguard is winged and seeks cover behind the car, and the bootlegger uses the opportunity to run away – as he is also out of bullets. With the two characters fleeing back to their car, we end the session.

Third session: deeper investigation

To account for the missing player in the previous session, we ret-con that he was sleeping in the car. We play out a scene where the two characters come rushing back and semi-panicking shouting that he needs to get the car moving. They drive back to Springfield and catch each other up and make a plan.

The group begins by following three avenues of investigation. The boot-legger seek out O’shea to get his family’s assistance. The musician research newspapers and town hall archives and the actor/stunt man will test the Black sample on a dog.

O’shea agrees to go and meet his uncle with their information and offer and they decide to meet later. Behind the scenes, I’ve decided that Dover concludes that the people spying on him was working for the Irish mob, and he will have his Night Gaunts kill O’shea in the evening, when they are to meet.

The musician digs out a lot more information – about Dover’s family history, the transfer of title to the slaughterhouse and thereby his address.

The experiment on a stray dog was a fun – but inconclusive – avenue. He lured a dog to him and feeds it with some meat with the Black on it. I explained how it fell asleep and made the ‘dog kicks’ of a dog dreaming. And then he had to wait for several hours before it awoke. Later on, it began whining and becoming restless, which is how I tried to indicate it was addicted. No matter what, the players didn’t dare to test the drug – which is of course wise.

After digesting all the information, they go to meet O’shea, but arrives at the scene of his death, with a man raving about him dropping from the sky. This underscores the danger they are in and increases the pressure on them.

They move on to Dover’s address and locate his apartment, which they force open. As I understood the adventure, Dover spends most nights at the Slaughterhouse, so he and Carter are not home. They find the journal, and the end of the session is the musician doing a first reading of this ‘mythos tome’, but he decides not to learn the spell Call the Black, mainly because of the additional time it would take.

Fourth session: the showdown

This time, all three characters approach the slaughterhouse stealthily in the spring rain. Now there is a guard circling the outer perimeter, and the bodyguard was sitting inside the car smoking (out of the rain). They get to the north side of the building and with a very good strength roll kick one of the old gates in. Both the bootlegger and the stunt man/actor are good with shotguns, and they kill two blackheads in the first round.

In the second round, Jacob Dover emerges from the old office and begins casting his spell and the two Nightgaunts attack, but the bootlegger manages to fight off the two Nightgaunts and the stuntman blasts Dover. At this point the bodyguard has also entered the room, and shot at the musician, who is in cover. But in the third round they gun down the two Nightgaunts, with some good rolls, and the bodyguard flees into the night, after seeing Dover gunned down.

The musician begins to search Dover’s room, as I decided the old inspection room was used as his office, and that the deed to the slaughterhouse, as well as his cash, was in there, given that there is nothing in his apartment, and he spends most of his time there. At the same time, the others search the main area.

At this point, I decide to introduce the Raw Head and Black Bones. I did that for two reasons: I think they deserve a ‘big monster’, and I felt like the fight against Dover and the Blackheads went a little too easy to be a good climax. If they had been less capable gun fighters and they had been wounded and barely made it, I think surviving the Blackheads and Dover would have been victory enough.

But as it happens, it forms out of the black ooze and bones. The musician fails his sanity roll and flees in the car parked outside. The two tough guys shoot a couple of shots, with little effect, before it glides over to the stuntman and whacks him with an average damage roll … and kills him instantly. At this point, the bootlegger runs for his life. RIP Francisco Oliveira (you can see the obit I wrote afterwards to the left, which reflects how the characters had to obfuscate the cause of death).

The musician flees to a bar and begins drinking, and he regains his memory and composure in the morning.

The two remaining detective regroup at the office. They decide to go back with gasoline and burn the slaughterhouse in the early morning, and – as it is still raining, which should keep the monster inside – I let them end the adventure with that.

There is of course a police investigation of the fire and the bodies found, but I think the police simply want to quiet things down at this point, and are happy the Black is gone, so nothing further is done, even though I’m sure they could easily figure out that the characters were involved in the shooting (see the newspaper clip at the end, for my wrap-up).

Conclusion and final thoughts

We had a lot of fun with the adventure. It is classic Call of Cthulhu investigation, but it isn’t overly complex to reach a conclusion, so it is good for players new to the game. It also has enough optional elements that it will not feel railroaded, despite it being linear from the college to the slaughterhouse.

I was perfectly happy to have the players meet the Irish mobsters and make a deal with them even after O’Shea died, but they players didn’t want to wait a couple of days – until the funeral was over to try to negotiate that deal – so they went to the slaughterhouse themselves. I think, if you introduce O’Shea, that many groups will consider allying with the mob, unless they are very upright citizen types, and having a few mob goons along means that you can really use Raw Head as a terrible foe at the same time as they face the Blackheads.

I wish that the slaughterhouse had more information about its contents and that the map of the slaughterhouse clearly indicated what was where. I also think the slaughterhouse is too small at about 50×30 feet. I regret not increasing the dimensions to double or triple the size, as I think it leaves more room for dark corners and a wild skirmish.

You can also play up the political elements of the story. Three dead college students would be a big problem anywhere. Particularly for a game with characters more tied to the institutions of the city, this could be a big factor in pushing them to resolve the situation.

As I mentioned above, it would also have been great with a couple of more handouts, as it is one of the aspects of a CoC adventure that really entertains and adds that special ‘feel’.

Next up for our mini campaign is the adventure That Jazz Craze.

I wrote a newspaper article to ‘wrap up’ the lose ends, which enables us to move on to the next episode of the mini-campaign.

ALIEN, women and horror

20 years ago, I co-wrote a thesis paper for my BA on gender, women and horror in the Alien films. We would have looked at it differently today, but the paper can still serve as an inspiration for Game Mothers and academics who wish to delve deeper into this universe and these topics.

Gender and gaming is a much more discussed issue today, thankfully, and I find it fitting to post this on International Women’s Day. The discussion of women and gender makes complete sense to me, especially when you discuss fictional universes and games, because it is so rewarding to examine them in the form of art and entertainment.

Ripley, as a character, undergoes radical changes through the four films, and we liken her death to the death of Christ.

Much of the theory used in the paper was already 20 years old when we used it, so from that perspective I think it could inspire others to dive deeper into the topic. That said, it is not a field I’m keeping on top of or working with, and there might be a lot of new more important theory out there which this article does not reflect.

The horror theory used I think can help Alien Game Mothers to more consciously incorporate horrific elements. As the paper describes, there are very strong links between what we consider horrific and women, reproduction, sex, birth and so on – themes that are extremely prevalent in the Alien universe. Understanding that theory can help GMs craft adventures, I believe.

The paper was written with my friend and fellow role-player, Per Frederiksen.

If these topics interest you, I suggest you give it a look!

ALIEN: Destroyer of Worlds – review and GM advice

Destroyer of Worlds is the second cinematic adventure published for Fria Ligan’s award winning ALIEN RPG written by Andrew E.C. Gaska. It is an excellent, action packed adventure in the style of the Aliens movie. The first part of this blog post is a review, done after having run it. In the second – longer part I will provide an overview of our experience and my thoughts and tips on running the adventure – which means there will be spoilers in the Game Mother’s section.

In short, the player characters – a group of badass Colonial Marines – are ordered to locate and capture four AWOL black ops marines. The AWOLS fled Fort Nebraska, a UA frontier staging point located on a frigid, half-abandoned, insurgent ridden moon, currently begin evacuated because a Union of Progressive Peoples invasion is imminent, and that is just the beginning. Shit just keeps hitting the fan. Sounds cool? You f…ing bet your scrawny marine behind it is!

The adventure was published in 2020 and comes in a box. The book in the box is 88 pages, and contains a description of the setting, six locations, several NPC’s, a detailed description of Fort Nebraska and the additional rules you need, if you only own the ALIEN Start Set. The box also has seven pre-generated characters, a deck of cards with vehicles (the UPP APC, a Marine Core tank etc), equipment, agendas for the characters and visuals and stats of most of the NPCs. And lastly, there are maps, including a big-ish one of Fort Nebraska. The production value is extremely high and it looks great!

A quick view at some of the stuff in the box.

It is fair to say, you get a lot of value for your money. It should also tell you, that this is not a ‘one-shot’ adventure, in the sense that you can run it in one evening. It is advertised as being a 3-session adventure. That can be done, but you can also easily have it last four or five sessions, depending on the attrition of the characters. The amount of content also means that you can find a lot of value in the box, if you want to convert it for a campaign game. The GM can easily ditch – or change – the plot, and simply use the maps, the setting and the NPCs.

I ran the adventure for a group of five players in a vacation house over a long weekend. We played for a total of 10-ish hours, and I had to rush the ending a bit and cut down on some of the events.

Whereas the first cinematic adventure – Chariot of the Gods – emulates the first Alien film, and is a really good adventure, this adventure explores the second pillar of the ALIEN RPG: science fiction action, and does it extremely well. Destroyer of Worlds is in my view the stronger of the two adventures.

All in all, we had a total blast with the adventure. So much so, that most of the board games we also had brought along were not used.

“Alien: Destroyer of Worlds was a great visceral experience with strong cinematic ties to the movies, which left me craving for more upon completion of the adventure.”

Adrian Jensen, playing Charlie

The adventure has a cool, dramatic atmosphere. It combines investigation, inter character roleplaying with tons of drama and action. The characters are very playable with a clear goal in the beginning and with agendas that will lead to plenty of drama in Act III. The adventure is tense and action packed, where the player’s get to act out any “hell-raising, air assault, breach the door, smart-gun firing” fantasies they might have.

Like I also wrote in my ALIEN RPG review, I think this adventure is very well-suited to introduce people inexperienced with role-playing games to the hobby, because it is so easy to imagine the setting, if you just watched a little of the Alien franchise movies. They need to be keen, however, as it takes more than one evening to complete.

It is also a quite demanding adventure to run. The separation of locations and events makes sense, but it means that the GM needs to prepare carefully, and pre-select some of the options presented. There are also a lot of details to keep track of.

The only real issues I have with the adventure concerns some structural issues around Act II and III, where the timeline seems to break down and with the implementation of some major events, but the players are probably so busy fighting to survive and riding the roller-coaster that they won’t notice.

I would also have like a timeline for what happens before the adventure begins, as you have to piece it together from the description, and I’m still not sure how exactly it should be understood.

“I loved it. An action packed rock’n’roll trip down paranoia lane, as if Jeremy Saulnier was given the task of directing an Alien movie.”

Martin Svendsen, playing Hammer

Why should I buy this adventure?

  • You want to run a great Alien adventure
  • You don’t want to run a full campaign, but a one-session game is too short a fix
  • Your player’s love scary, hopeless, out of the frying pan and into the fire action science fiction
  • You want additional setting information and maps for your campaign
  • You want to run a Marine Campaign, and want an easy option for a grand ending to the campaign.

Why should I avoid this adventure?

  • Your players hate everything science fiction and only wants to cast spells and swing swords (which is fine, some people are like that!).

Advice for Game Mothers

Firstly, as you can see if you read the adventure, this text is with the caveat that the modular nature of the adventure means your experience will be very different from ours. But I still think reading a walk-through of our experience will help you run the game more smoothly and avoid a couple of pitfalls.

From here on, there will obviously be spoilers.

It is important to note, that I ran this game knowing I was on a strict deadline. After I had run the first four hours, the players were so enthusiastic that we decided to play the following afternoon for a couple of hours as well, which enabled me to do a bit more with Act II. But the choices I made reflects the time limit and the pacing of running it for two and half session, as well as the actions of the players/characters. If you have more time – especially with unlimited time – your choices, and the player’s choices will create a different flow and experience.

However, you should note that whatever happens, the main clue to reach the end of Act I is an insurgent divulging the location of the compound. There are also dice rolls involved, and there is at least one place in Act III where a failed roll can screw up the ending.

Act I: the Hunt

My players started with the Oblivion Bar, moved on to the Marshal’s Station, then the oil refinery and finally the Insurgent Compound, so the space port and the San Rocco medical facility were never in play.

Oblivion Bar

They went into the bar, and, as the veteran players they are, they stationed two at the front door. This meant that the two insurgents there could not plausibly get out without being noticed, as is the intention in the adventure. And already at this point, I made my first change!

According to the adventure, the girl insurgent was supposed to contact Botos, but I didn’t want the characters to already be aware of the insurgent leader and potentially start looking for a path via radio calls to Botas, so I had them working for Stolls instead as low level mooks.

First, however, Captain Silver went to talk to the bar owner, and as Fei2 is sympathetic, I had her ask them to come in through the back instead, as it would be bad for business for her to let them in through the front. That made the players appropriately suspicious.

I also mentioned Captain Edie, but they thought him too drunk to be worth speaking to.

When the characters notice the two insurgents, and start to interrogate them, it turns into a brawl, before Petre can take a hostage. A brawl is a good way to get the players familiar with the combat system, without too much at stake, so roll with that.

They capture the two, and put them in the APC, where they interrogate them. They let them know that they were to contact Stolls about any marine coming to look for the AWOLS. But when they now contact Stolls via radio, there is no answer (as he is at the marshal’s station).

All the while, they have good fun mispronouncing Zmijewski’s name and he retorting in kind – which seems to be a common experience.

Talking to Fei2, they get to see the security footage, and how the AWOLS argued and split.

To get more information about Stolls, they decide to go to the marshal’s station, if I recall correctly. They certainly didn’t see the potential for Reese having been picked up by the marshals. If you want a more direct clue, you can change the adventure to Fei2 or the dancer seeing Reese getting picked up by the marshals inside the bar, instead of afterwards.

It is great to have the NPC portraits. If I have one complaint, it is that their stats don’t entirely reflect how badass they are. They should have had a talent or two more.

The Marshal’s Station

This scene turned out almost perfectly, and we had our first character death. The characters get past the receptionist and talk to the marshal. They learn about both Stolls and Reese and decide to go and participate in the Stolls interrogation first. They are reasonably successful and decide to also bring him back to Fort Nebraska for further questioning. The Captain decides that she and Hammer will go and check on Reese, while the rest get Stolls into the APC. Yes, a split party!

So, when the two lone marines find Reese’s corpse, and Captain Silva walks back out to the team, she encounters the xenomorph hidden under the ceiling. We draw initiative, she fires and runs back to Hammer (we had forgotten about this rule, but the smarter move, would have been to switch initiative with Hammer, so he would act first, move up beside Silva and get a shot at the alien).

Instead, the xenomorph charges down into the cell, where both the marines now are. It doesn’t kill anyone in the first round, but when Hammer opens up with the Smartgun, the acid spray breaks Captain Silva. Zmijewski comes running, and with one more character engaged they finally get the xenomorph killed.

The rest of the characters rush to their aid, and Chaplain (Jaell) now steps into his role as commanding officer, and as he is the medic, decides not to save Silva’s life, even if he could. This can be seen as a controversial ruling, but I decided it didn’t count as PvP. Of course, the player who ran Silva was disappointed that he already had to get a new character and didn’t get to experience her arc. As GM, however, I must admit I think having someone you – from a movie-perspective – could view as a “main character” die in the first act, enhances the mood and tension – like Samuel Jackson getting eaten in act 1 in Deep Blue Sea.

Not the best movie, but a memorable death and it sets the tone!

At this point, I introduce Ms. Eckford, who simply walks up to Dante guarding the APC and asks to speak with his commanding officer. She tries to engage with Chaplain, but he calls Colonel Meyers, who I doubt would want Eckford meddling more, so Chaplain shuts down the building and moves everyone back to Fort Nebraska for a debrief.

In the interest of time, I let them get back to base and have Stolls crack and reveal the rendezvous at the oil refinery.

The scene ended with a very “realistic” mood of confusion, suspicion and sorrow. The player, who played Silva, decides to play Gunnery Sergeant Mason, instead. 

I had foreshadowed the snowstorm, and I move that in at this point.

Ultimately, I didn’t use Eckford again in the adventure. There was simply not enough time to make it work well. But I didn’t know that in the beginning, so I needed her in play early, if I were to deploy her to good effect later. If I had more time, I might have introduced her already at Fort Nebraska, when they get ready to go out after the briefing. That way, they will be less suspicious of her, given that she in on the base and therefore a “legitimate” part of the military operation.

Getting allies can be critical to their success (and a handy source of new PCs).

The refinery
The action at the refinery didn’t take long. They sneaked up on the men in the building, with the assault team leading the way in, and the rest waiting outside as backup. They opened with grenades and then went in full throttle. There was a small firefight and they finally capture one of the people there – the one with the radio, whom they interrogate, and learn of Wójcik and the compound.

The players debate, whether to ambush the insurgents when they get there for the rendezvous, but end up deciding to assault the compound.

I think an ambush at the refinery should be a viable option, and I was thinking that the insurgents would arrive in a couple of tractors and trikes and at the same time Vice Sergeant Major Davydocih would appear with his commandos. The stress of the ambush would trigger Wójcik, and she would run amok inside a tractor or something.

In any case, they are asked by the Major, if they want a Cheyenne dropship available to deploy as an air assault – and OF COURSE they say yes.

This is where we ended the first “session” of around four hours.

Who wouldn’t want to arrive in style?! Knock! Knock!

The Insurgent Compound

The group decides to do a two-pronged assault. The assault team and the Gunny will rapel onto the compound and the rest of the squad will fight their way through the gates with the APC.

The initial assault goes well, and they get through the gate and down to the roof, respectively. However, the two insurgents with rocket launchers in the inner yard gives them some problems.

It is important to note here, that the dropship can be a problem for the progression of the game, as an intact dropship gives them a way off the moon. Therefore, either the insurgents or UPP attack craft need to damage or wreck it.

In our case, a rocket puts a big hole in the dropship, and it flies away to provide firing support from a distance, but is, when the UPP arrives, re-tasked to defend the colony.

The assault team, Hammer and Dante led by Mason enter the compound from above after taking out the lone guard on the roof, and quickly encounter Wójcik. With three opponents to pick from, and a couple of lucky parrys, the group manages to defeat “her”. But are very freaked out.

Meanwhile, the other half of the team blasts into the inner compound, after shooting everything that moves outside, but the APC is hit with a very efficient RPG shot, which wrecks the armoured vehicle, and sends a blast of flame through it. Only the NPC Iona, driving the APC is damaged, but they get out quickly, and fight their way into the compound, lighting up the RPG-wielding insurgent with an incinerator.

The ground team discovers Stolls and his insurgents inside the living room, and sneak in a couple of grenades. That isn’t enough to take them out however, and they end up in a cool gun fight. I will say, the grenades seem like they are less effective than they would be in real life.

The fight in the insurgent compound was very intense.

Stolls escape to the outside of the compound, but the characters take him and a fellow insurgent out, when they attempt to climb the wall.

At the top floor, they discover LC Wright, chained in the next room, and she promises to help them, if they release her. The scenario highlights this as a secondary option for her location, and that worked well. It was especially useful to have a ‘voice’ in the rest of the adventure, who could talk about Fort Nebraska and the xenomorph problem.

The radio comes to life, and Act II begins in dramatic fashion.

Playing this scene took almost two hours, and it was great fun – chaotic and dramatic, with shit blowing up and cool close quarter battles.

Giving them the chance to blast gates and insurgents with gatling guns and plasma cannons was all kinds of fun.

I confused stage II and III for her Anathema forms, and used stage III attacks for both segments, but it didn’t influence the outcome.

ACT II: Invasion

Going into Act II, I knew I had to cut it fairly short, to stay within our time limit, but I also needed to make it feel significant enough to provide a break between the two acts, let the players play out their agendas and increase the tension.

The characters find Wrights gear, restocked on grenades from Botos and pick up his radio, so they knew someone was coming, but Chaplain collapses and begins to reboot. They were out of transport but take two of the quad bikes from the compound – one was destroyed when the gate house was blasted by the plasma cannon – and use them for the wounded and Wright (whom they don’t trust fully yet).

They hoof it through the snowstorm, while seeing the bombings of the space port, celebrations and incoming drop ships and dog fights above them.

I think it was an observation test to see their pursuers that prompted the high-strung Hammer to roll a face hugger on his stress dice, and as a result he dropped something. I ruled that he suddenly realized that his pocket with X-Stims had torn during the previous fight, and he must have dropped his drugs just a few moments ago in the snow (as I’m sure he obsessively checks that they are there). He immediately turns back to look for them, which forces the team to face their pursuers.

A hard firefight in the relative open begins, and the team gets the upper hand – mainly because of their many stress dice, and with Wright they have superior numbers. But Zmijewski gets a crit (gut shot). I forget to use the actual stats of Davydovich, but in the interest of time, it doesn’t matter. If I had had more time, he could have become a recurring threat, or reused as an ally later. But I was actually happy with how this encounter went. After the fight, Dante has a couple of blood drops run from his nose, even though he wasn’t hit (event).

I then add meeting Fei2 and her UA loyalists, and as Mason wants to save everyone, they bring them with them.

I also mention the ruptured oil pipes, but they don’t investigate them closely.

Finally, I introduce the tank and the insurgents sneaking up on it. The team takes out the couple of insurgents without dice rolls (again, I need to conserve time, and it seemed a foregone conclusion) and they order the tank crew to take them to the base, with Chaplain inside, while the rest of the team rides on top and Fei2 follows behind with the refugees.

The act ends with the electromagnetic burst and the black goo.

The Black Goo attack is a bit overkill, in my view, but it clears out Fort Nebraska.

The electromagnetic burst gave me problems, and I admit I missed that broken equipment could be repaired with a COMTECH roll. I think it is a bit too vaguely described – it says “most electronics – even those that would otherwise be shielded” are destroyed. How much of their equipment is actually electronic – and what might avoid being burnt? Is Mason’s CBRN detection kit electronic? I mean, it can be a very important piece of kit in Act III. What about their pulse rifles or Smart Guns? It seems like they would be affected. But it isn’t like the game explicitly expects them to be disarmed going into the fort and going to an armory to re-arm. Is anyone inside the tank or an APC protected, since “shielding” doesn’t work?

It raised a lot of questions, and my players asked multiple times: does this work, still? I usually said yes, because it was easier , especially given the time pressure (and had overlooked Comtech). Furthermore, the writers suggest that the tanks could be used to blow the gate, but wouldn’t they have been blown by the EMP? Because my players certainly wanted to go that route – and it would have been fun? And what about the sentry guns on the fort walls?

With more time, perhaps I could have broken much of their equipment, and made it an imperative to replace it at the base. One idea would be to roll a number of stress dice according to the equipment’s bonus dice, and break it on a Facehugger.

The EMP mostly seem like a plot device to “kill” all the hardware before the black goo is deployed, but the authors don’t seem to have thought through the consequences. Or maybe I missed something…

The artwork in the adventure is amazing. But the book is mainly text and maps.

ACT III: Getting off the moon

Fort Nebraska works like a dungeon crawl with random encounters, and where the group has to go back and forth to various objectives. I wish I had more time to run it, but on the other hand, I think with the tension built high, it shouldn’t run on for too long.

First, a word on ‘game stoppers’. In both this adventure, and Chariot of the Gods, there are a couple of times where a failed roll will completely derail the game. In Chariot of the Gods, failing to open the first air lock is such a time. In this adventure, it is when they try to restart the reactor in Act III. If that fails, it is basically game over – go blow a nuke. That kind of failure can be interesting in a campaign, where there is always another potential option, but here it kind of screws the ending. So, watch out for that!

I also ran into a bit of a problem with the black goo bomb, although I don’t think my players noticed. Given the time I think I needed to pass in Act II, they also moved most of the distance to the fort (about 5 clicks). Most groups will be coming from the compound, which means the black goo bombs have been dropped south of the fort, and the consequence of that is that the group shouldn’t run into the worst hit anathemas.

I let them experience one, before they reached the wall and its defenses. They decided to blow a couple of sentry guns with their rocket launcher, and I hand-waved that effort, although it cost Dante an ammo count. I didn’t find that part critical, given the time constraint. It is also a situation, where a freak, non-dramatic roll can kill a PC, which would be anti-climactic, given the stage of the game.

So, they climb the wall and enter the fort. They are told by Wright about the need to find a Major’s dog tag, and I added the ‘End of a Good Marine’ event, and Hammer picks up the marine saber.

They enter the lobby and find the area secreted and with several in cocoons. Later, the players remarked that it seems very quickly that the xenomorphs have accomplished all this work. I fully agree. It also seems like an odd location. Furthermore, shouldn’t there be ovo-morphs to impregnate the cocooned? However, the function of it is to telegraph that the base has been taken over by xenomorphs, to increase the tension. You could change this to an encounter with a single xenomorph or move the area to deeper inside the base and add a few ovo-morphs.

In short, they try to get down to sub-level 2, but discover the radiation in one of the shafts. Wright suggests that there are Hazmat suits in the armory, which they go get, but as there are only five, only the PC’s enter the second floor.

I roll a xenomorph encounter for the passage to sub-level two, and with Dante on point, I introduce the ‘cuddly xenomorph’, which is noticed by Hammer, and they begin to freak out and it ups the tension.

They reach the maintenance pits and the reactor relay room, and sneak past. Then they have the cunning plan, that they send Dante into the reactor room, to prepare it. This turns into an excellent scene, where Dante – sweating profusely in a HAZMAT suit – works for 15 minutes in the room, while the three xenomorphs in there come up and check him out. Very tense! And spot on for the mood.

He is a killing machine with 10 stress dice and the Overkill Talent, and he rips through the xenomorph

Meanwhile, Hammer sneaks out to test himself. He walks into the maintenance pit and charges a xenomorph with the Major’s blade. Here, I made a special ruling, because I thought it would be cinematic, that Hammer would be able to use Move to avoid acid sprays.

At this point, he is a killing machine, with 10 stress dice and the Overkill Talent, and he rips through the xenomorph. It destroys the blade of course.

This is where the whole thing hangs on a dice roll. Charlie rolls easy Comtech to restart the reactor. But fails and can’t push as an android. Fortunately, he has a story point available, and succeeds (barely) with the second roll (he should have succeeded automatically as per the rules). Without that success, the adventure will grind to a halt, so maybe have a backup plan, like going to the mainframe and ask Mother/Jaell to boot it up?

At this point, I overlook that they need to go back up to A.P.O.L.L.O to reboot the mainframe. In retrospect, I’m actually glad I didn’t, because it would have added time to complete the adventure, which we didn’t have.

Next, they go to set some nukes. They succeed in sneaking past the Charger – which is good, because I don’t have time to run the combat. They set a nuke, but fail to deduce how much time they’ll need to ascend. I’ll get to this point, when I discuss the climax.

Climbing to sublevel 1 via the chains in the ammo depot requires a push, and I use it to deploy the Charger, where the final character climbing up the chain barely escapes.

The team then proceeds to sublevel 3 with the NPCs.

Meeting the Queen is an epic – almost once in a gamer-life experience. Try to time it, so it doesn’t happen at 2AM with half the group asleep at the table!

Sublevel 3 and the finale
The characters go directly to the medlab and quarantine lab, where Charlie preps Dante for surgery. But while they are in surgery Hammer makes his play (according to his objective) and drops two frag grenades on the rest of the team and hauls ass.

After recovering, they pursue him to the space elevator shaft (I did not consider combat resolved, so Hammer is still a PC). As Dante and Charlie are doing surgery, the players get Iota and Wright.

Hammer opens the gate and is face to face with the Queen – the moment I think everyone was waiting for. Hammer opens up with his SmartGun, and with his total of 20-something dice, does a ridiculous amount of damage. His attack is followed up by grenades and other munitions, which takes out the Queen (I forgot to roll on her Critical Table, and make an epic come-back. FAIL! But I was tired…). Hammer is rushed by the xenomorph sentries and is broken, and when the rest of the marines rain fire on them, he is (deservedly) killed by the acid spray.

The remaining marines kill the last couple of xenomorphs and they get ready for departure. Because they discover that the inoculation had worked on Wright, they decide that everyone needs a shot, before getting on to the elevator.

I narrate how they go up the elevator, and as they begin to turn anathema, the nukes go off, and the space elevator tether collapses and the whole thing ends in a massive impact event.

Additional observations

Roads not taken

If you’ve read all of the above, you will notice that I never got to use the space port, the medical facility and most of the Act III events and the NPCs useful for Act III ( Colonel Meyers, Eckford and Davydovich). With a full session for Act III (or even two), it would have been great to at least use a couple of events with surviving marines and the frozen body of the Colonel.

And they never met Jaell. But I forgot about A.P.O.L.L.O. It was a lose end that would have been nice to tie up.

Things I learned and things I should have done differently

  • First of all, rolling to understand how long the elevator will take to get up there is dumb. They should know, more or less, how long it takes, because several of them must have taken the elevator, or have an understanding of that kind of tech.
  • I forgot COMTECH to fix equipment broken by EMPs.
  • A few hours after the game was over, I knew how I should have ended it. I should have let them use the escape capsule, while the elevator is getting destroyed. and land somewhere on the moon. Then more than half the characters would turn anathema – and if we’d had the time – played that encounter out, with the survivor waiting on a crashed escape module in the middle of a frozen wasteland. But – even experienced GMs – don’t always make the perfect call.
  • Overkill and plenty of stress plus armor piercing guns, means that marines can without too much effort kill Stage IV xenomorphs with one attack – or Stage 5 with an RPG. I think that is by design, but even though 14 armor looks like a lot for a Queen, it doesn’t hold up to RPG attacks, sniper rifles and SmartGuns, when players roll 4+ successes every time. Consider bumping the Queen up a bit, depending on who/how many survives at the end.
  • The recommended “three session” length for the adventure isn’t too far off, but it obviously depends on the length of your sessions, and there are many variables: Act I can be long or short, depending on how quickly the players move to the compound, Act II can be stretched out with events, roleplay and combat, and Act III has the potential to be very long, if you use the events and “random encounters”.
  • I would schedule at least 12-14 hours of game time for the adventure, and I would try to avoid doing Act III in one session to make sure you have some awake and fresh players for the conclusion.

Maps and stuff
The maps for the adventure are very cool, but also too small. I had a local print shop double the size of the Act I locations, which was very useful, and at a reasonable price.

Unfortunately, it turned out the fold-out map of Fort Nebraska is also too small. None of the players could actually read the text on the maps, which was a bit frustrating. If you have the spare cash, especially if you expect to run the adventure more than once, consider getting a print of Fort Nebraska double the size of the original (BIG).

For background music, I used some tracks from Aliens, but I also found that the score for the movie Hunter Killer also worked quite well.

Hunter Killer is a quite poor to mediocre action flick, but the sound track worked well for this adventure.

Final thoughts and verdict

I think I can speak for all of my players to say we had a blast, and ultimately none of my mistakes, or any flaws of the adventure itself, ruined our fun.

The game is so action-packed and dramatic, that it is very likely any lack of logic or irregularities will be overlooked until after the game.

The time you have to run it, and the paths your players take, will mean that your choices and experience will differ significantly from mine, and I think that is ultimately what really elevates this to a superb adventure. It provides a very solid framework for a fantastic role-playing experience, but ultimately it will be up to you and the players to make all the parts come together and have an epic, action-packed movie-like science fiction horror experience.  

With new or immature players, the “following orders” and use of hidden agendas could create problems. On the other hand, the official chain of command might make it easier for an inexperienced group to play as there is a defined structure as to who makes decisions – as opposed to a fantasy adventuring group free for all.

It is a challenging adventure to run, where you need to keep a lot of moving parts at your fingertips. I personally like how Free League structures the adventures, with locations first and then events you can sprinkle mostly as you please. But it does require careful preparation. I made a flow chart for Act I, where I plotted in the various clues that could bring them to other locations, to ensure I didn’t forget to deploy the relevant hooks.

I can see the need for the mysterious outsider attack with EMP and black goo, to ensure that the base is mainly deserted and to get the UPP attack out of the way, but it also seems a bit overkill for an adventure already mainlining cocaine and adrenaline!

In Act III, as a Game Mother, you need to consider if you still want to kill PC’s with “random shit”, and let them take over NPC’s, or make sure they die at cinematic moments?  The slow whittling down of the group mirrors Aliens perfectly, but it might not be that much fun – as a player – to have your character killed two hours before the climax of the game.

Three points of critique

  • The EMP blasts and the Goo attacks don’t seem to have been fully thought through and their consequences applied to Act III
  • The timeline for a xeno-morph takeover of Fort Nebraska seems off
  • As written, a couple of dice rolls in Act III can derail the fun.

The two cinematic adventures have covered two of the three themes (Space horror and Sci-fi action). The one left is Sense of Wonder, so I assume the third adventure might involve some colonist stumbling on some Engineer ruins and something about the Draconis strain, which is present in both adventures.

If you got this far, I hope that you will pick up the adventure and run it with as much – or more! – success. I for one hopes that Free League will continue to publish such excellent content for a really great game.

If you have questions or comments, please write in the comments or connect on Twitter.

Adventures in Middle-Earth Reviews

Adventures in Middle-Earth (AiME) is an RPG set in Tolkien’s world between the events of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It is based on the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition engine, and you only need the free System Reference Document to use the AiME books.
Below you can find links to Reviews of many of the AiME books.

I’ve also played Wilderland Adventures and Eaves of Mirkwood and written my comments on how I ran the adventures and what I would change.

Cubicle 7 no longer has the rights to producing the game, so there are no more supplements coming, but the books currently available are more than enough to run multiple campaigns and to build your own.

All in all, it is a fantastic and faithful low-magic merging of the D&D 5e rules and the Tolkien-universe. There are a couple of balance issues and design issues, especially at the higher levels, but nothing a creative Loremaster can’t fix.

Player’s Guide to Adventures in Middle-Earth
Loremaster’s Guide to Adventures in Middle-Earth
Loremaster’s Screen and Eaves of Mirkwood
Mirkwood Campaign
Wilderland Adventures
Rhovanion Region Guide
The Road Goes Ever On

Game guide:
Wilderland Adventures 1: Don’t Leave the Path
Wilderland Adventures 2: Of Leaves and Stewed Hobbit
Wilderland Adventures 3: Kin strife and Dark Tidings
Wilderland Adventures 4: Those Who Tarry No Longer
Wilderland Adventures 5: A Darkness in the Marches
Wilderland Adventures 6: The Crossings of Celduin
Wilderland Adventures 7: The Watch on the Heath

Wilderlands Adventures: Don’t Leave the Path

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures with my group of 7 players. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog. These adventure blog-posts are one part review and one part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during the adventure.

Our first adventure had a somewhat fragmented group. We began late December, and due to vacations, illness and work, I had 3-4 players when running the adventure, but in different constellations, so I had to do some narrative adjustments to keep it logical.

How it played out

Session 0.5:
The first four players made their characters, and we began the adventure. I followed the adventure and had them wander along Long Lake, when the young Belgo comes running, and tells them that his father is being attacked by his guards. The group rush after to help him and drive off the thugs with a well-aimed attack and a solid intimidate roll. They agree on helping him getting through Mirkwood, travel with his elven friends on rafts to the Halls of Thranduril and manage to convince the elves that they can stay and get some nice supplies, while they rest. They still feel that they are rather an unfriendly lot, those elves.

A book of 7 linked adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth by Cubicle 7. 

Session 1:
The group begins the journey through Mirkwood with the merchant Baldor and his son Brego. With two of the original four players missing, and two new players participating, and one still not able to make it, I create an encounter, where the two new characters are fighting two attercops, and the third – still unnamed character – has been poisoned and is unconscious. The two ‘old’ characters come upon the battle, while leading the small caravan, and throw themselves into the fight. During the fight, the non-present characters ‘guard’ the ponies, Baldor and Brego against other attercops. The two groups agree to travel together for safety (obviously).

For the journey we rolled Feast for Kings for Embarkation and two journey events. I decided to place the journey events in between the fixed encounters, and they arrive at the sink holes, a place touched by the shadow, before the Castle of the Spiders.

Baldor drinks from the stream, and the present characters chase after him, while the non-present two characters remain behind to guard Brego (felt fitting with the story, actually).

They follow his trail and arrive at the castle of the spiders, where they successfully rescue him, after a tense and fun battle. I had one of the absent PC’s arrive, a world weary Dunedaín, to provide bow cover-fire for their escape.

After the battle, Baldor and a dwarf player character have a great role-playing exchange on Baldor’s experience of the death of Smaug and the reclaiming of the Lonely Mountain.

I introduce the second journey event, and the group comes across Tauler, one of Shelob’s children, but they manage to avoid him without being seen, but gain a few shadow points, and run for their lives.

Session 2:
The unconscious (7th) characters wakes up, but due to unusually low attendance, he only has two active travel companions. I narrate how the absent characters are so exhausted and mentally drained from the trip, that they stay around the Baldor and Bregor to guard them. The new character is a Wanderer, and as the group really needs a long rest, he activates an ability, to lead them to a hideout, where they can have a long rest.
After the rest, I introduce an additional journey event, where they find warg paw prints at a potential camp site, and the wanderer shines again. Then comes the storm, they fail their audience with the hermit, and a thrown out of his home.

Finally, they arrive at the well, the Dunedaín fails his save, and jumps into the well. They fight the Thing in the Well and survive.

As we still have good time left, Baldor tells them of the rumour of the new Easterly Inn. They head for that location, we role-play the arrival, have a fellow-ship phase, and I introduce the hook to the next adventure. We end the session when they depart to find Dindoas Brandybuck.

How was the adventure?

It was a strong adventure, and it played better than I had expected. After reading all seven adventures, I considered this the weakest of them all. But it was dramatic, had a strong mood and reflected the dangers of this journey well.

My players have had different play experiences, because of the fragmented group. But, overall, they are happy that there is action, but a greater focus on role-playing than in my home brew campaign. A couple of them did fear that the setting was too – how shall I say it – light and too focused on pure narrative role-playing drama. They want to roll initiative and fight orcs. And they still get that!

One of my players also told me that he really liked that he knew that everyone is a hero. In regular D&D, he must consider everyone’s true motives, but in AiME, they can fundamentally rely on each other.

Dark mood
The mood inside Mirkwood was excellent. The journey events enhanced the mood really well. In the second session I did change one of the random events from an encounter with more attercops to the ‘place of shadow’, because they were fighting attercops when I introduced the new characters.  For pacing reasons, I had four journey events (including the attercop attack in session 1), and it worked well.

The oppressive and exhausted mood that is the essence of the journey played out very well. Particularly, after the group rescued Baldor, and he told his story of losing his wife and home, wishing the dwarves had never woken Smaug, we had one of the best role-playing scenes in recent years. The frayed bond between father and son also gave the last part of the adventure a shadow of sadness, which I think worked well.

I’ve had the battle maps printed. It adds an extra dimension, for sure.

Good & bad encounters
The Castle of Spiders was an awesome encounter. It was very tactical, because of the terrain. It was tense due to constantly appearing spiders, and it looked like the players had a great time. The small things, like 25 ft. movement, and wielding a spear with reach, was important.

The Thing in the Well was not quite as interesting a battle. I had to boost its hit points, despite there only being three characters, as they had reduced it to half hit points, before it had a chance to act.

At first level there is a lot of luck involved in combat, and one blow can fell a character. So, on one hand, the encounter is very dangerous. Characters falling down the well, or who are hit more than once, have a good chance of going down, and that will quickly turn the tide. Particularly, if they have spent their powers already, they will be in great danger. On the other hand, the Thing has AC 12. With starting characters having +5 or +6 on hit rolls, it means it is likely that 3 out of 4 attacks will hit it the first round. Three attacks can quite easily do 20+ damage. As written, it is unlikely the combat will last more than 2 rounds.

As I considered the Thing a bit of a boss encounter, it was a little bit disappointing.

What would I do differently?

I would change the hook:

MAtt C Tavern
 You can listen to Matt Colevilles arguments for starting in a tavern, here.

The hook is rather weak. I understand they want to introduce the action quickly, but if I were to run it again, I would start the adventure in Lake Town at a tavern. I would let the thugs be competitors to the characters, which would create tension in the first scene. It would also give the characters a way to introduce themselves, the can haggle with Baldor, and intimidate the thugs. Later on, the thugs can follow them, and try to attack them at night.

I would introduce scenes:

When Baldor drinks of the enchanted stream and runs off, it is one of several cases, where something happens during the Wilderland Adventures, where it seems like the characters can act, but the outcome is basically certain, if you want a fun adventure.
The problem is that the characters think they can catch Baldor, before he runs into the forest, for example with a skill roll. I mean, Baldor is an older, not very fit man. It seems plausible, but there is no indication of how far Baldor is from the watch, when he goes crazy. That can create frustration with players. My player just shrugged it off.

The same can basically happen, if Brego is the one enchanted by the Thing in the Well, and throws himself into the well, and a similar situation occurs in the next part of the adventure.

The solution is to me – suggested by a player, who also DMs – that I tell them there is a scene, and I then describe what happens in a dramatic way. They are cool with a fun story unfolding, and that way there is no ambiguity to create frustration.

I would change the final encounter:

I think the final encounter could use some more terrain to make it more interesting. If the well is inside some kind of ancient structure, just with some walls and perhaps a couple of rooms, it would create more tension when they explore it.

Review: Rhovanion Region Guide

The Rhovanion Region Guide is for Adventures in Middle-Earth – a D&D version of the One Ring RPG. You can find my review here.

The Rhovanion Region Guide is a setting guide for Adventures in Middle-Earth by Cubicle 7. It covers the areas between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood and Mirkwood itself.

It is the companion volume for the Mirkwood Campaign, but is also useful for the Wilderland Adventures book or if you run your own campaign in the same area.

It does not cover Dale, Laketown and the Lonely Mountain. It also omits Lorien and Moria, which could be considered part of that area.

Great product

Overall, it is a very useful and well written supplement, and I think they hit the right level of detail, compared to e.g Forgotten Realms or Earthdawn products I’ve read. They provide ideas for plots and interesting locations, but don’t go into so much detail that you feel constrained by it.

The artwork is – as always in Cubicle 7 products – great. And they display their usual excellent sense of the setting and the mood it conveys. It feels like the Middle-Earth Tolkien invented.

The book is divided into three main sections:

  • the Lands of the River
  • the Greatest of the Forests
  • New Adversaries.

The two first sections begins with a historic overview of the area and then describes the different sub-regions in some detail – probably over 4-5 pages on average. The descriptions follow the same layout and contains: an overview, Wildlife, Inhabitants, Notable Characters and Notable Places. Quite self-explanatory.

Tauler is one of the three named spiders. My players ran into him at random in their first Journey through Mirkwood.

The final section on adversaries has 16 monsters or named beings, from the lowly forest goblins to the three mighty Children of Shelob that dwell in the Heart of Mirkwood.

It also contains a two new Cultures player’s can pick: Wayward Elves and Wild Hobbits.

Furthermore, there are many new Fellowship Undertakings that are unique to a location and Sanctuaries that can be opened. For example, you can go Hunting Grim Hawks with the Riverfolk or Study with the Lampmaker of Thranduril’s court. I think they are quite evocative, and really exploits the Fellowship Phase system well.

The organization of the book makes it very easy to use, when you are preparing your adventure, because it is divided into quite small areas and with the right amount of details for each area. That is a key feature in a book like this. It also has a nice index.

Disappointing profiles

I think there is a general flaw with some of the named monsters and renowned NPC’s, like Thranduil. They tend to be bit underwhelming. It is as if there hasn’t gone that much creativity into making them memorable or interesting foes. For example, Thranduil’s Legendary Actions are that he can re-use his parry reaction or attack again with his bow or spear. Is that really the best they could come up with? And only one of the three major spiders is more than just a big bag of hit points with web and poison (the third one is pretty cool though).

One potential criticism

I think your perspective of the book may change a bit, depending on whether you intend to use this book on its own, or with the Mirkwood Campaign.

If you don’t have the Mirkwood Campaign, you may find it annoying that they often hint at more plot developments described in the campaign book, or that things like stats on the Nazgûl are in the campaign book, despite the fact that Dol Guldur is described in this setting book. Things like that, can make it seem like they are trying a bit too hard to push people to also buy the Mirkwood Campaign.

I will review the campaign book as soon as I’m done reading it…

What is missing from this book?

The small village that grew next to Radagst’s home.

Not much, really.

  • I would have liked more maps of adventuring locations, particularly if I was running the Mirkwood Campaign. There are maps of the ‘good’ settlements like Beorn’s House and Rhosgobel, but not of Tyrant’s Hill or any of the ‘dungeons’ like The Lost Watchtower, which they players are likely to visit. That would have been useful.
  • I was surprise that it didn’t contain any Wonderous Artefacts or Legendary Weapons or Armour as part of the lore and plot hooks. I would have liked just a couple as examples and adventuring hooks.

What stood out to me?

  • The easy organization and layout.
  • When the lore is mixed with some of the dramatic stories (often fleshed out in the Mirkwood Campaign) there are some very compelling adventuring seeds.
  • There is a page on Beorn and his story-line, or fate, if you will. It really asks some interesting questions and helps the Loremaster on a delicate topic: how do you deal with the life and death of one of the iconic characters of Tolkien’s world?

What do I find particularly useful?

  • I’ve already used the book to prepare for my Adventures in Wilderland campaign, the map of the Hall of the Elven King, would especially have been handy, if the players had gotten access. I anticipate that will use the information on the settlements that my players are likely to visit and NPC’s they can meet a lot.
  • I will also use the history and monsters for a couple of side-treks, to maintain the flow and keep things interesting.
  • For the first adventure, which takes place in Mirkwood, I’ve used the descriptions of the landscapes and what trees and wildlife are found there. It can be a challenge for me to vary my descriptions, and this book is a good help to mix things up.


Why should you buy this book?

  • You are running the Mirkwood Campaign
  • You are running Wilderland Adventures, and you would like to get more help
  • You will run a campaign or part of a campaign in the area
  • You want more information about the Beorning and Woodmen cultures for your players
  • You enjoy reading about Middle-Earth


Why should you consider another product?

  • Your game is focused on another region
  • You enjoy crafting these details yourself, for a unique campaign, based on Tolkien’s writings.



Review: The Road Goes Ever On

The Road Goes Ever on is a travel supplement for Adventures in Middle-Earth by Cubicle 7. It contains four large maps with print on both sides and a 32-page booklet.

The most significant value lies in the eight maps that covers each of the four large regions of Middle-Earth, Eriador (where the Shire, Bree and Rivendell lies and the site of ancient Arnor), Wilderland (which is the initial focus of the setting), Gondor & Rohan and Mordor.

Cleverly, the player map and the colour coded map for the Loremaster map is on two different pieces, so you can hand out the player map, while keeping the Loremaster version. 

The hexed maps are essential if you wish to use the Middle-Earth travel system. In this system area has a colour code and a symbol for how difficult and dangerous the terrain is. With the core books you only get the map for Wilderland, so if you run a game in one of the other areas these maps are needed (I guess you can make something similar yourself, with some graphic skills!).

The booklet contains expanded events, rules and inspiration for generating random NPC-encounters on the road, inspiration and random tables for creating ruins, a few groups of enemies, a couple of camp-site battle-maps, a system for avoiding battles, a couple of pages of inspiration for sights along the way, and two pages on lodgings on the road and finally two pages on experience for journeys and travel related oaths.

Is it good?

Yes, I actually liked the supplement, and was inspired by it. As always, Cubicle 7 captures the mood of Middle-Earth very well.

The maps are of good quality, and I now have one I can hand out to my players.

The best part, was – for me – the random events, encounters on the road and the section on ruins (which covers about 2/3 of the booklet). I don’t need them that bad, as I run Wilderland Adventures, where there are dedicated event charts, but if you run a more open sandbox style game, the will be handy. But I did get a better sense of details in the setting, like which plants are you likely to find and what travelers can you meet on the road.

The section on motivations for random travelers on the road is thorough, and has some suggestions for turning expectations on its head, and they help you ask questions, that can generate plot hooks and interesting role-play situations.

Bones of the Earth

A ruined farmhouse from Road Goes Ever On.

The ruin section helps you create ruins with a distinct Middle-Earth feel. The odds of encountering something dangerous is actually quite low, though. I think the best way to use the section is to spend 30 minutes rolling up a couple of ruins for later use, in stead of slowing down the game and doing it at the table. That way, you also make sure you have something ready, if you want to change the pacing of the game, or need to introduce a place to rest for the players.

The eight dangerous encounters are also handy. They run from CR 4 to 10. They claim the CR can be modified by giving the boss or the warband one of the strengths or weaknesses from the Loremaster’s Guide. I have serious doubts that they have that great an effect, as the deciding factors in encounter CR are mainly the number of attacks arrayed against the PC’s. Secondly an unusually high AC or nasty (area of effect) special ability, is normally a key danger point.

The part on avoiding battle is basically a set of skill checks, and may be useful for beginning Loremasters, but something a more experienced GM/Loremaster can wing quite easily.

The ekstra battle-maps and the oaths PC’s can make to gain experience are also ok, but minor additions, in my view.

That also goes for Lodgings on the Road, which describes the poor and rich farmhouses and inns in Middle-Earth. Again, fine inspiration, but not needed for most Loremasters.

Is it worth 30 dollars?

If you need the maps and/or if you have little time to prepare, I would say yes. But if you are on a budget, and you don’t need the maps, you can probably get more value for your money elsewhere. I would suggest the Rhovanion Region Guide. It is only 10 dollars extra, and has 135 pages of ready content and setting information. Will review it soon.

Except for the maps, there aren’t really anything in Road Goes Ever On that can’t be made by a relatively experienced Loremaster with time on her hands.

But if you – like me – are a fan, like the tables and the direct inspiration of the charts and questions, this is a useful supplement. I will definitely roll up a few things, just in case I need them in my game.

Why should you buy Road Goes Ever On:

  • Your game moves outside of Wilderland
  • You enjoy tables and charts for inspiration
  • You want to save time preparing your game

Why should you consider buying another supplement?

  • You have plenty of time to prepare
  • You prefer planned encounters
  • You are on a budget and don’t need the maps


Session 22 & 23: The Crystal Pinnacle

These were two relatively encounter heavy session, where the characters enter the lair of the (buffed) hag Arasekha, but sessions, where they sacrifice important things to gain knowledge that will move the plot forward.

Sacrifices for Oracle

We began the session by the well, where Xarzon, whom the paladin identifies as being a celestial, still sits waiting for them to leave, so he can use the oracle himself.

There are seven players present, so when the player of Korrick, the dwarf fighter/bard, asks Xarzon, what you must sacrifice to learn something, not everyone hears. That becomes important.

Korrick decides to sacrifice his new Ring of Protection +1 to the spirit in the well, and the huge spirit emerges from the well and answers Korricks question on the nature of the curse that afflicts his clan (more on that later).

A little later, the gnome rogue, who together with the group’s wizard stole some sort of item from the monastery the wizard grew up in, decides to do the same, but choses to sacrifice 30 silver and some blood. Obviously, 30 silver is far from enough, so the spirit snatches some of the offered life force and the gnome is deducted 5 hit points – permanently.

Both characters got some relevant information that potentially will change the future decisions they might make.

The green hag of the MM was too weak. Arasekha was a 10th level diviner, with extra HP and Lair Actions. Her older sister is worse.

The lair of Arasekha

The group then continues and find the exit to the lair of Arasekha, and when they pass through the portal, they emerge on a platform suspended more than 100 feet above the crystal forest on the side of a huge crystal spire (300 feet high). They are immediately attacked by a group of flying crystalline creatures, and they take some punishment. They dare a short rest, hoping that the witch hasn’t set an alarm, and succeed.

Exploring the pinnacle, which is a maze of hard to navigate crystal halls and corridors with multiple reflections of everything, they first find a garden of crystal plants with an elven caretaker. He is pruning the plants with a mithral dagger. They engage him in conversation, and he stalls until “his” minions arrive. Three groups of crystallized centaurs and hobgoblins charge towards the room. The elf turns out to be some form of simulacra and he shatters when hit, and the minions are engaged with fireballs and other potent magic, and fall before the group.

They push on and enter a large room where a group of crystallized hobgoblins are experimenting with the crystal. And we end session 22, ready to roll initiative.

Session 23

The following session the group fights the hobgoblin laboratory workers and a crystallized deranged hill giant. They defeat them without too much trouble and find hobgoblins immersed in a solution, which seems to expedite the growth of crystal, and an elven prisoner, who is mostly infected with the crystal, which seems to be spreading like an infection. She begs them to kill her and find her imprisoned brother.

The leader Jarn decides to try and find the prisoner, before they deal with the witch. They succeed and locate him together with two centaurs. After the jailers attack, and are defeated they make for the tip of the pinnacle.

At the top they find Arasekha, who is guarded by a couple of crystalline elves in a small throne room. A battle begins, and she summons simulacra of herself to divert their attention, while casting wall of fire and other spells. The group responds with all they have, using summoned panthers to attack the simulacra, to locate her true self. After a fierce struggle they defeat her, loot her sanctum of spells, her Staff of the Seer and a few other items, including a very finely made mechanical beetle.

The spire begins to collapse, and when they reach the portal, it collapses. The Warlock use his feather fall spell to let them escape, without having to brave the collapsing spire. When the session (and 2016) ends, the group find themselves in a crystal forest 100s of miles from their settlement.

What went well:

  • The crystal spire was an evocative setting, and with five major rooms/encounters it also had the right size.
  • The final battle with Araskeha was fun and had good features, lair actions and odd surprises in it.
  • The use of the oracle helped propel the plot forward based on player actions.

What could I have done differently:

  • I should have used Arasekhas ability to speak and act through the crystal even more to make her even more evocative and interesting.
  • Her minions at the final battle should have been just a bit tougher to make the encounter a little more challenging.




Planar travel for dummies – session 21

In this session, my players wander into the planes for the first time, and therefore I will write something on how I see the planes in D&D and how I’ve changed it for my home brew world, in addition to the normal session recap.

A couple of the issues I have with the planes in D&D are that there are so many of them, that the facts concerning the planes are ‘true’ and that most of them are infinite.

The problem with the fact that there are so many is that most characters – and thus players – will so rarely visit the same ones that they never gain any familiarity with them. The planes fail to become an integral part of the game world. In a typical campaign you will maybe visit one plane, so unless a campaign is centered around one of them – invasion by the City of Brass or the intrigues of the unseelie courts – they don’t play a big role.

Sigil is probably the most interesting city Wizards or TSR ever made, and it doesn’t exist in the prime material plane. 

But on the other hand, the planes are infinite. They must therefore have many more interesting places and beings than the prime world, which annoys me, because the prime world should be the most interesting (Sigil is in many ways a more interesting place than Greyhawk or Waterdeep). And there are known ‘facts’ about them (you can look them up in the DMG), which makes them less mysterious.


The prime world is more complex and finite and therefore more manageable and interesting to explore (as it should be), but the actual interaction with these far planes should be part of the adventurer’s lives and understanding.

My approach
To improve on this (in my opinion), I’ve made some changes to my multi-verse. The key ones are below. Others I will not write here, as my players are unaware of them, and I like to keep it that way.

In Earthdawn powerful monstrosities lurk in the Astral plane, and some even exists in both planes at once.

  • First of all, I’ve combined the Feywild, Shadowfell and the Etheral plane into one and called them the Warrens (inspired by Steven Erikson), and that plane mirrors the prime plane, like the astral plane in Earthdawn and the umbra in Werewolf the Apocalypse.


  • Secondly , I’ve changed several spells to fit this, so when you detect or divine you see through the Warrens and when you teleport or misty step or whatever, you actually walk through the Warrens, where time and distance works differently. As the Warrens are a mirror to the prime world, it also means you can’t teleport across an ocean, you need a vessel inside the Warrens, which would enable you to cross the ocean faster. There are also beings inside the Warrens, many of them powerful, so you have to tread carefully.
  • Thirdly, there is not one, but several explanations to what they are and how they work – just like we can discuss the nature of the divine. The two my players have heard are: Some say the Warrens are a failed version of the prime world that the first gods discarded. Others that the presence of magical essence in all things naturally creates a mirror state.

These changes have the effect that the Warrens are relevant in basically every session and that the players slowly learn more about them.

It also underscores the main theme of my campaign: exploration. The Warrens is a place you explore and it is part of exploring the prime plane.

Also, instead of simply teleporting from one place to the other they have to travel everywhere, and have to consider if the advantage of going somewhere quickly outweighs the risk of meeting something very dangerous. This also underlines the theme of the campaign.

The session:
When the characters stepped through the portal (only 3 out of 7 players were present) they were immediately set upon by vengeful animal spirits, which they relatively easily defeated but they damaged them. The portal was located inside the Warren’s version of the hollowed tree.

They then began investigating the tortured elf who was crucified nearby and concluded that he had lost his soul. Then the Horned Devil and its two henchmen (bearded devils) were summoned and another fight ensued. It appeared that it had been promised their souls.

5th edition Horned Devil. A CR 11 monster taken out by 3 level 6 characters. Maybe I was easy on them?

To explain the presence of more characters and make they fight more appropriate, I ruled that the non-present player’s characters engage the two bearded devils. The three remaining characters then sniped away from a Fog Cloud and managed to banish the devil.

Outside of the tree, the woods of the Warrens were eerily quiet and unnatural, with no sun and with the great trees casting long shadows. Two paths had been marked through the Warrens, and they knew that to navigate the Warrens away from the path would require a stern focus (successful INT or WIS checks). One path was marked with skulls another with small crystals. They chose the crystal path north, which should lead to the middle sister.

After a few hours journeying through the Warrens they spot a corpse of an elf by an altar holding a staff with gems. They move away from the path to investigate, and when they get closer suddenly the path has disappeared, as has their four companions, and the elf turns out to be a skeleton holding nothing. At that point they are set upon by shadow bats and a weird sylvan creature with the legs of a hind and razor sharp teeth that sucks blood. They defeat them after a fierce battle and search the area as they can’t see the path anyway. In some ruins nearby they find her lair and a cloak woven from living plants and shadows and decide to rest.

They steel themselves and locate the path again, but they can’t see their companions anywhere. As the move on, they come upon a fight between a big dark skinned man wielding a beautiful great sword fighting a pack of very cunning regenerating wolves next to a mysterious dark well. They enter the battle on his side and finally slay all the wolves, which coalesce into one rangy man wearing wolf-skin.

Very complex fantasy series, highly influenced by Black Company, and grew out of an RPG campaign. One of my favorites. 

The man, who is named Xarzon, thanks them and they talk. It turns out the man was hunting him on behalf of a former employer, whom he has a disagreement with. He was a dangerous Dissembler – a shape shifter that can turn into multiple beasts (also stolen from Eriksons novels). He also tells them that the well has a spirit in it which serves as an oracle, if appeased correctly. He also tells them a few things about the Warrens: that they are strange beyond the vast space of the north, that the land is under some kind of curse and that the eldest of the Sisters of Sorrow dominates the trolls in her area and has made a pact with one of the Lords of the Nine Hells.

He also gives them a ring of protection as thank you, and with the loot of the Dissembler, it was a rewarding session.

Double feature: A dragon surprise…

So, being a dad and a DM, leaves less time for prep. And obviously, prep is more important than the recap and the blog. But I will keep at it, but the recaps of the latest two sessions will be short and to the point.

lazy_dm_cover_340wI’ve been looking into The Lazy DM (Lazy DM download), and there are some very good tips, but aren’t fully applicable to the kind of campaign I’m currently running. The kind of depth that I’m looking for in the history of the world they slowly uncover simply can’t be extrapolated from a few notes and improvisation (I can’t at least). It requires a bit more prep.

I did one thing in session 19 that I think warrants a pat on the DM-back, and that is letting go of prepared stuff, in favor of moving the plot forward.

When the PCs finished with the mine and returned to the settlement to rest, they discussed what to do next. I had already cut out the attack on the goblin tribe nearby by having the other adventuring party deal with that threat. That also reinforced the meta-theme of colonizing a new land and dealing with the natives. It is brutal, and interesting, how easy the dilemma of wanting to build something in a new land, but faced with enemies and diverging interest, leads to morally questionable choices. In any case, I had mapped the goblin lair and made a few rooms, but they were already too high level, and I would rather follow other, and more important, plot threads.

I also clearly said that the Kuo Toas could be dealt with by others as that adventure also wouldn’t push the plot(s) forward.

But back to the recaps.

Session 19:

The group explored the umber hulk lair and the tunnel from there that lead down to a natural cave, where the ancient miners had begun digging. From that cave they found the first shaft, which they entered the complex through.

The dragon simulacra had less dangerous breath weapons and only AC 17. 

Finally, they went down to the automaton storage via the unexplored elevator. The automatons didn’t attack, and the room led to the vault. The vault was protected by a security system, including an automatic portcullis, a very intelligent magic mouth that shot frost rays from its eyes and two dragon simulacra of metal that attacked when they tried to pick the lock to the vault.

They succeeded in dispelling the worst of the trap and rapidly killed the simulacra (the damage output, when the party is lucky, is insane). Inside the vault they found their first platemail, a few magic items, including an axe made by giants, and a lot of knowledge. This included letters between two elven sisters and a story about a curse put on an elven family by giants.

Having cleared the mine, they returned to the settlement and spent a month and a half of down time. In that time, they returned to the mine with a few dwarves from the settlement and made an anvil in the mine, so they could setup their own smithy and the druid awakened a couple of beasts to help protect the settlement.

Session 20:

Of the four most interesting options: going after the remaining hags through the portal, visiting the Colourless Bridge, exploring the ruined city and exploring Fort 25, they chose the first.

Before they left, someone scried on the party, and Welk, the wizard with a weird item, knew that to be the case (for some reason).

After the harvest, they returned to the lair of Kinsira, but went a different route, and found a devil trapped in an old building with magic. They decided it would keep until they returned.

When they approached the huge tree stump, they noticed webs in the area that would warn anyone inside of their approach.

Inside the tree, there were apparently giant spiders, and something spoke to them in draconic, demand that they leave. They tried to intimidate it into submitting, but they were unaware that the creature behind the voice had been paid by the two remaining hags for protecting the area.

I liked the idea of having a quite mercenary young dragon, who ran into more dangerous adversaries. 

The spiders eventually attacked together with some ettercaps. At the worst possible moment, for the group, the young green dragon attacked, and its breath weapon drained a lot of hit points from the team (42 to be exact). Unfortunately for them, I rolled a 6 on recharge next round, and gave them another breath, but couldn’t cover them all, and it could have ended in a TPK, but the characters still standing responded with a wall of thorns and a fireball, and when the dragon failed to fell the mighty half-orc fighter the following round, it submitted to the stronger adversary.

Back on their feet, they questioned the dragon and learned a couple of things, including the facts that the eldest of the hags lives in a swamp to the south and the middle sister lives in a crystal forest to the north, and that they are called the Sisters of Sorrow. The group argued about whether to make a deal with this evil dragon about staying there as their ally, but they ended up banishing it, and hoping it will stick to their deal.

Finally, they passed the portal into the Warrens. Inside they found a tortured elf and was almost immediately attacked by animal spirits of beast that Kinsira had conducted her experiments on.

Roll initiative!